The Baltic front-runner

THOUGH all three Baltic countries loudly but vainly argued for early entry into NATO, they have even more zealously argued for EU membership as the next-best way to mark their distance from Russia. And Estonia, fearful of being held back by its neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania, had started to advertise itself less as a Baltic state than as a bit of Scandinavia stranded across the Gulf of Finland: local entrepreneurs have been bravely talking up the idea of a tunnel from Tallinn to Helsinki.

The ploy seems to be working. The EU has had to recognise that Estonia’s tiny, open, fast-growing economy meets all reasonable criteria for entry. Estonia has been planning to peg its currency to a European single currency, whether early EU membership beckoned or not. It would not have to liberalise trade or investment regimes to meet EU norms: its markets are open. On the contrary, joining the EU might even cramp its laisser-faire style. But Estonia sees that as a fair price to pay for the “soft” security gain of being inside one of the big western clubs, and for the guaranteed market access that would also come with EU membership.

Russia claims it is perfectly happy for any or all of the Baltic states to join the EU. In practice, it may decide to have second thoughts. Many Russians have still not learnt to view the Baltic states as independent countries. Russia’s foreign ministry is still temporising over border treaties. Boris Yeltsin singled Balts out for criticism at last month’s summit in Denver of the seven leading industrial countries plus Russia. The thought of “losing” the Baltic states to the West, even in the gentler shape of the EU, is bound to trouble the Kremlin. At the least, it may threaten to cut up rough in order to see what new concessions it can wring.

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